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Preserving and Exhibiting the Outstanding Accomplishments of Chinese Civilization

By National Museum of China Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-10-28

The National Museum of China (NMC) is a vital public cultural institution for collecting, researching, exhibiting, and interpreting artifacts that embody the advanced socialist, revolutionary, and traditional culture of China on behalf of the country. The NMC strives to promote Chinese civilization with a strong respect for the past. Following a decade of high-quality development and rapid growth, the NMC has seen its collection grown to 1.43 million exhibits, with a well-structured mechanism of acquiring, conserving and researching artifacts that are housed in a world-class, modern building. The collection is presented using a three-dimensional exhibition system, with diverse ways of social and educational communication, innovative methods of exchange and cooperation with external partners, and a team of highly trained professionals, which have led to important advancements in our collection, curation, display, and international exchanges.

Striving to preserve artifacts of Chinese civilization

After opening its doors 110 years ago, the NMC has always adhered to its mission of cherishing our collective national memories and passing on our nation's cultural genes. It strives to protect and manage cultural relics that embody the best of traditional culture of the Chinese nation, while strengthening the research and utilization of them so that it can bring history and the relics to talk. In so doing, it hopes to make positive contributions to national cohesion and confidence as well as to promote exchanges and learning between civilizations.

The NMC has always valued archaeological work. As early as 1921, around the same time as the excavation of the Yangshao site (which led to the discovery of a Neolithic culture that thrived in the middle reaches of the Yellow River around 5000-3000 BC), the excavation of the ancient Song Dynasty city of Julu in Hebei Province began, which was the prelude to the museum's archaeological work. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and especially after the policy of reform and opening up was introduced in 1978, the NMC's archaeological work progressed rapidly. The focus was initially on field archaeology, but it later shifted to the pioneering areas of underwater, remote sensing, and aerial photography archaeology, with the establishment of dedicated institutions. Over the past century, the NMC has organized or participated in approximately 70 archaeological excavations and surveys, ranging from Paleolithic archaeological sites to an underwater Qing Dynasty shipwreck. Our efforts to uncover artifacts of China's remarkable history and culture, whether on land, underwater, or from the air, are our contribution to recording the more than 5,000-year history of Chinese civilization.

The museum preserves many archaeologically excavated cultural relics, documents handed down through generations, and other artifacts, which illuminate the history of Chinese civilization like a string of pearls. For example, cultural relics unearthed at the Zhongba site in Chongqing, now held by the NMC, span the late Neolithic Period, the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, which in themselves give a sense of the magnitude and magnificence of China's continuous civilization over many millennia.

The treasures in the collection of the NMC showcase the brilliance of human culture and tell stories from across time. These include the earliest evidence of the use of fire discovered at the Zhoukoudian site in Beijing; Neolithic bone needles from the Miaodigou site in Henan Province; carbonized grains of rice from the Hemudu site in Zhejiang Province; the pig-shaped pottery gui (vessel) of the Dawenkou culture from Shandong Province; the bronze yue (battle-axe) found in the tomb of Lady Fu Hao at the Ruins of Yin in Anyang, Henan Province; the late Shang Dynasty oracle bone with an inscription of king's order on collective farming; the Guo Ji Zi Bai bronze pan (water container) dating to the Western Zhou Dynasty unearthed at Baoji, Shaanxi Province; the bronze jian and fou used as a "refrigerator" and "oven" dating to the Warring States Period found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at Suizhou, Hubei Province; the Yangling Tiger Talisman from the Qin Dynasty; the jade burial suit held together by golden thread dating to the Western Han Dynasty; the pottery model of an ox and cart from the Northern Qi Dynasty; the Song Dynasty bronze mirror with figures playing cuju (an early form of football); the bronze bell cast for the master mariner Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty; and the indigo glazed porcelain zun (vessel) with swallows and a gold-painted design made during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor in the Qing Dynasty.

To preserve these artifacts of Chinese civilization, the NMC set up the dedicated NMC Institute of Conservation, which employs a combination of technical methods and traditional crafts to preserve and restore cultural relics in the museum's collection. This ensures that the public sees items from our collection in their best possible condition and that they can experience the wonder and unique charm of China's cultural legacy for themselves.

As China's foremost institution for history, culture, and art, the NMC collects and exhibits representative artifacts from China's more than 5,000-year history. It houses artifacts of all types and materials covering a vast span of history, which hold a wealth of complex information. Each one has significant historical, cultural, scientific, and aesthetic value, which must be understood through rigorous multi-disciplinary research before it can go on display. More than 50,000 items enter and leave the museum's storehouses each year, and more than 10,000 are chosen to be exhibits.


Key artifacts from the collection of the National Museum of China:

1) jade dragon from the Neolithic period;

2) oracle bone with an inscription of the king's order on collective farming from the late Shang Dynasty;

3) Houmuwu square cauldron from the late Shang Dynasty;

4) glazed tricolor ceramic camel and riders in a tomb of the Tang Dynasty.


Today, the NMC is a modern comprehensive museum and the largest single-building museum in the world by floor area. It holds an average of over 70 innovative and diverse themed exhibitions each year, which has helped it remain one of the most popular museums in the world for many years. It plays a vital, irreplaceable role in exhibiting Chinese culture, fostering our national spirit, and steering the development of China's cultural and museum industries. This has turned it into a cultural and spiritual home for the Chinese people, whether they reside in China or overseas.

Interpreting the origins of Chinese civilization

The exhibition halls of the NMC contain artifacts from all regions in China that attest to the varied origins of Chinese civilization. These include the painted pottery basin with a fish and human face design excavated at Banpo, Shaanxi Province; the eagle-shaped pottery ding (tripod vessel) from Huaxian, Shaanxi Province; the bone flute from Jiahu, Henan Province; the jade dragon belonging to the Hongshan culture from Ongniud Banner, Inner Mongolia; the painted pottery jar with spiral patterns of the Majiayao culture from Gansu Province; the pottery pot from the Taosi site in Xiangfen, Shanxi Province; the black pottery pot with two noses belonging to the Liangzhu culture from Zhejiang Province; and the bronze mask from the Sanxingdui site in Guanghan, Sichuan Province.

Based on archaeological data of remains from the settlement of Jiangzhai, which belonged to the Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BC) located in modern-day Shaanxi Province, there was already a prescribed social structure, and people were not equal, as evidence of people of special status—an early nobility—had been discovered.

A jade cong (item used in rituals) of the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BC) in the collection of the NMC is the tallest of its kind in China. The sun and moon pattern inscribed on it is the same as that used by the Dawenkou culture on sacrificial pottery, which is evidence of exchanges between and the integration of Liangzhu culture in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in southern China with the Neolithic culture in Shandong Province in northern China.


A painted pottery basin with a fish and human face design from the early Neolithic period. With a height of 16.5 centimeters and a diameter of 39.8 centimeters, it was excavated from Banpo, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, 1955.


The pottery kettle excavated from the Taosi site in Xiangfen, Shanxi Province, is inscribed in vermillion ink with the Chinese character for "wen" (culture), which together with the character for "yong" (city wall) and other words inscribed on pottery and oracle bones belonging to the Erlitou culture constitutes the earliest artifact discovered to date that bears Chinese characters. The characters share the same origins as scripts used in the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, demonstrating the diversity of the origins of Chinese civilization.

The Jades from Hongshan: An Archaeological Achievements Exhibition of the Hongshan Culture held at the NMC in 2020 displayed precious artifacts such as the "jade pig-dragon," which provide abundant and conclusive archaeological evidence that late Hongshan culture had developed to the point of primitive civilization. This, in turn, provides strong material evidence for the claim that Chinese civilization dates back more than 5,000 years.

Presenting unity amidst diversity in the development of the Chinese nation

As soon as visitors enter the NMC's Ancient China exhibition hall, they see a huge electronic display of China's past dynasties, which reflects the Chinese nation's development pattern of unity amidst diversity. They will also see the bronze pan (water container) with three wheels from the Spring and Autumn Period; the gold seal from the Western Han Dynasty that bears the inscription "Seal of the King of Dian"; the miniature stone stele by Master Zhenghui commemorating a pagoda dating to the Liao Dynasty; engraved edicts from the Western Xia; the Hundred Family Surnames poem written in Phags-pa script during the Yuan Dynasty; and the Pacification of the Dzungars scroll painting from the Qing Dynasty. Each of these items intuitively reflects the integration and development of the Chinese nation. Together, they prove beyond doubt that each and every one of China's ethnic groups contributed to developing our vast territory, writing our long history, creating our remarkable culture, and cultivating our great national spirit.

The NMC's Ancient Chinese Culture: Costume and Adornment exhibition displays changing preferences across dynasties and eras, but it also reflects the continuous development and fusion of styles of China's various ethnic groups. The exhibition provides plentiful corroboration for the idea of a sense of community among the Chinese nation throughout history.

The tri-colored glazed pottery of a camel and a dance group from the Tang Dynasty, glassware made using Western techniques, and the stone Buddha plinth inscribed by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang all evoke the peace and prosperity of the Silk Road and the inclusiveness of Chinese culture. They prove that the prosperity and development of Chinese civilization have been inseparable from exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations and that the concept of civilization to the Chinese encompasses equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and tolerance.

Showcasing the splendor of Chinese civilization

The genetic code of Chinese civilization is embedded in its cultural treasures. In the NMC's Ancient China display, the Houmuwu square cauldron (food container) dating to the Shang Dynasty is the largest and heaviest piece of ancient Chinese bronzeware ever excavated. It weighs more than 832 kilograms, and its unique artistry, decoration, and casting reflect the highly developed bronze culture of the Shang Dynasty. The Da Yu tripod is an ancient valuable piece dating to the Western Zhou Dynasty, which is known as one of the "Three Treasures of China" along with the Great Ke tripod and the Duke Mao tripod. It is also a valuable artifact for the insight it provides into the feudal system of the Zhou Dynasty and the relationship between the kings of Zhou and their vassals. The 291-character inscription on the Da Yu tripod records King Kang of Zhou awarding a title to Yu (the maker of the tripod) and describes lessons from the reigns of King Wen and King Wu of the Western Zhou Dynasty who ruled diligently as well as from the Shang Dynasty bureaucrats who lost their state due to their indulgence in wine.

The bronze mirror with the inscription "Zhong Guo Da Ning" (great tranquility for China) from the Western Han Dynasty; the Four Generals of Zhongxing painting depicting one of China's national heroes, Yue Fei; the script written by Wen Tianxiang, one of the Three Loyal Princes of the Song; and the final letter written by the famous martyr Fang Shengdong to his father, all of which are in the NMC's collection, are from different historical eras, but they all demonstrate loyalty and love for one's country and compatriots, emotions that transcend time and place.

The exhibition titled Rice, Origin, Enlightenment: Special Exhibition of Shangshan Culture Archaeological Discoveries in Zhejiang held in November 2021 included a carbonized rice grain discovered at the Shangshan site that dates back 10,000 years and vividly illustrates China's significant contribution to rice farming. The NMC's exhibitions, including Ancient Chinese Buddhist Sculpture, Ancient Chinese Food Culture, Ancient Chinese Currency, Ancient Chinese Calligraphy and Painting, Ancient Chinese Porcelain Art, and Ancient Chinese Jades, display a wide range of artifacts from ancient China.

The NMC's special exhibition The Power of Science and Technology included the world's oldest surviving book printed using wooden movable type titled The Auspicious Tantra of All-Reaching Union, which proved that China was the first country in the world to invent movable-type printing.

The bone inscribed with the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches from the Shang Dynasty, the knife inlaid with gold from the Eastern Han Dynasty, the bronze compass from the Yuan Dynasty, the gun from the Ming Dynasty, mapping instruments used by Zhan Tianyou to design the Beijing-Zhangjiakou rail line, key notes from the synthetic crystalline bovine insulin experiment, and lunar samples retrieved by the Chang'e 5 mission to the moon are some of the artifacts at the museum that exemplify outstanding Chinese scientific and technological achievements. Further evidence of China's engineering prowess is displayed during the Paddling for a Thousand Miles: A Cultural Exhibition of the Grand Canal. The exhibition tells the story of the development of the Grand Canal, the oldest and longest man-made canal in the world, which is still in use today. The Mighty Long River: Yangtze River Culture Exhibition features famous ancient scroll paintings of the river and its surrounds that reflect the impressive history, prosperity, beauty, and engineering associated with the Yangtze River.

Telling the story of Chinese civilization

President Xi Jinping has stressed the need to bring more cultural relics and cultural heritage to life to encourage a social atmosphere that will encourage the display and continuation of Chinese culture. In recent years, the NMC has committed itself to becoming a smart museum that organically combines ancient Chinese culture with modern technology, such as promoting cloud services and developing online exhibitions. Our cloud-based museum features 56 virtual exhibition halls, 100 webpages on exhibitions, and more than 50 short videos, which have made cultural relics and special exhibitions that display the splendor of Chinese culture accessible to millions of people from the comfort of their own homes. The exhibition Ancient Chinese Culture: Costume and Adornment features 15 silicone figures using digital technology and includes an immersive experience area, while an oracle bone inscription-themed exhibition displays a special holographic projection of oracle bone inscriptions to entertain visitors.

In 2019, an NMC-themed subway train was launched in Beijing to promote the museum's most fascinating relics from China's more than 5,000-year history. In 2020, the NMC worked with Beijing Daxing International Airport to develop a display that included photos of artifacts and treasures in the airport. Other innovative projects, such as a Lantern Festival interactive puzzle book, have helped us to vividly tell the story of Chinese civilization, thereby deepening people's cultural understanding.


The Da Yu tripod, a bronze vessel from the collection of the National Museum of China. A treasure from the early Western Zhou period, the vessel carries inscriptions that provide insight into the feudal system and the relationship between the kings of Zhou and their vassals.


The NMC is striving to improve its educational value. To cater to the interests of different groups, the museum offers a range of docents, including full-time, volunteer, diplomatic, and specialist docents, as well as smart tour guides, and the online Ancient China exhibition offers different audio guides for children, teenagers, and adults. Focusing on the educational role of cultural relics, there are books and animated videos such as the History Encyclopedia Picture Book for Children and Oracle Bone Inscription Mystery Tour, which have proved to be popular additions. The museum is expanding cooperation with schools and has developed a series of books and courses in collaboration with Beijing primary and secondary schools to promote traditional Chinese culture in classrooms.

The bronze figurine used to teach acupuncture and moxibustion dating from the Ming Dynasty is important evidence of the development of Chinese medicine. In January 2017, President Xi visited the World Health Organization and presented a similar bronze statue. In May 2019, the NMC arranged The Splendor of Asia: An Exhibition of Asian Civilizations to coincide with the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. The exhibition brought together more than 400 precious relics from 49 countries that exhibited the history of exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations. In 2019, the museum presented an exhibition in Australia titled The Historical Expression of Chinese Art: Calligraphy and Painting from the National Museum of China. In 2022 the Taste of China: Ancient Chinese Food Culture Exhibition was held in Liechtenstein, which showcased the unique charm of China's traditional culture to foreign audiences. In 2020, together with 15 other national museums from across five continents, the NMC held the Hand in Hand: We Are with You global museum collection event, which allowed an online global audience to view five items from its collection, namely, the eagle-shaped pottery tripod, the bronze rhinoceros-shaped vessel inlaid with gold and silver, the statue of Fuxi and Nüwa, the bronze acupuncture figure, and the indigo glazed porcelain vessel. In 2022, it will take part in the Hand in Hand: Share the Splendor of Global Civilizations online exhibition of global museums to convey to the rest of the world the common values embodied by Chinese civilization and build our international image as a country worthy of trust, friendship, and respect.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 14, 2022)